A downtown Baudelaire of the '90s: that's what New York poet Mark West used to be. Now, at thirty-one, locked in a perpetual adolescence, he's slipping. Even when he takes an artist-in-residence position at a small Oregon college, he finds himself still sleeping with strange women and seeking momentary oblivion in drugs. But when he returns to Manhattan with a new book idea and renewed energy, an emotional train wreck awaits him, and he discovers that he must take his first steps into his new life alone.
Details writer and second-novelist Nelson (Girl, 1994) chronicles the restless adolescent flailings of a mediocre poet. Thirty-one-year-old Mark West is a heroin-snorting high school grad with three published books and a powerful nostalgia for his fifteen minutes of fame, which took place some years back when New York magazine dubbed him the "Baudelaire of the Nineties." But now he's a marginal figure on the Manhattan spoken-word scene, reduced to trying to talk his way into nightclubs without paying, and scrambling for money and contacts. He even gets arrested on a subway platform. Howard, his beloved editor and indefatigable supporter, tells him he's letting his talent fritter away, and at Howard's urging, Mark reluctantly ships out to take a yearlong gig as artist-in-residence at a small Oregon college. There, he learns to make small talk with earnest faculty members and runs a poetry workshop attended by various dilettantish locals and by stringy-haired Vanessa, who has actual talent and clearly articulated disdain for his work. He sleeps with some students, drinks heavily, and loafs around his apartment, hopelessly bored. As his stint draws to a close, he starts work on some ironic nature poems and seduces a motherly and happily married English professor before heading back to Manhattan. He's ready to party, but key figures from his downtown gang are getting married. Then he learns that Howard, the only person he really cares about, is dying of AIDS, a discovery that precipitates not just sadness but panic: Who else will care about Mark's career? Perhaps (surprise, surprise) it's time to grow up. This portrait of an aging loser and his airless world undoubtedly has its accurate elements, but barring any evidence of growth on Mark's part, the pointless litany of substance abuse, boredom, and bad poetry (quoted for pages on end) is mostly tedious. (Kirkus Reviews)